As a philosophy major, I read many texts that were written in the past — some long ago. Of course, I came upon Marx and then what was called Marxism (though Marx wouldn’t have applied this term to himself). Then, came the 20th century versions of “Marxism,” some of which laid the groundwork of what some ‘spherians have bitterly described as “cultural Marxism.” I don’t disagree with their diatribes, but I do get rankled now and again when they want to tar Marxists with a wide brush. They always sound to me like they’re quite ignorant of some offshoots and smaller branches of the field.
Read the following quote and tell me how applicable this is to today:
Culture is a paradoxical commodity. So completely is it subject to the law of exchange that it is no longer exchanged; it is so blindly consumed in use that it can no longer be used. Therefore it amalgamates with advertising. The more meaningless the latter seems to be under a monopoly, the more omnipotent it becomes. The motives are markedly economic. One could certainly live without the culture industry, therefore it necessarily creates too much satiation and apathy. In itself, it has few resources itself to correct this. Advertising is its elixir of life. But as its product never fails to reduce to a mere promise the enjoyment which it promises as a commodity, it eventually coincides with publicity, which it needs because it cannot be enjoyed. In a competitive society, advertising performed the social service of informing the buyer about the market; it made choice easier and helped the unknown but more efficient supplier to dispose of his goods. Far from costing time, it saved it. Today, when the free market is coming to an end, those who control the system are entrenching themselves in it. It strengthens the firm bond between the consumers and the big combines.
Only those who can pay the exorbitant rates charged by the advertising agencies, chief of which are the radio networks themselves; that is, only those who are already in a position to do so, or are co-opted by the decision of the banks and industrial capital, can enter the pseudo-market as sellers. The costs of advertising, which finally flow back into the pockets of the combines, make it unnecessary to defeat unwelcome outsiders by laborious competition. They guarantee that power will remain in the same hands — not unlike those economic decisions by which the establishment and running of undertakings is controlled in a totalitarian state. Advertising today is a negative principle, a blocking device: everything that does not bear its stamp is economically suspect. Universal publicity is in no way necessary for people to get to know the kinds of goods — whose supply is restricted anyway. It helps sales only indirectly. For a particular firm, to phase out a current advertising practice constitutes a loss of prestige, and a breach of the discipline imposed by the influential clique on its members. In wartime, goods which are unobtainable are still advertised, merely to keep industrial power in view. Subsidizing ideological media is more important than the repetition of the name.
The quote is from the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, two of the founders of the Frankfurt School in pre- and post-war Germany. During World War II, both spent some time here in the US in California, where they witnessed the rise of the “culture industry” and mass-market advertising. Their words are prescient and very applicable today, though you can replace the radio with the Net and the ever-encroaching efforts to commercialize it further. (Fortunately, there’s no mass government control — yet.)
The book is well worth a read, but will require patience since the language is a bit of a slog and the material might presuppose a lot.